The story of the London public’s initial exposures to art is a crazy, odd one that I’m still exploring, and on this exploration I’ve come across an intriguing artistic couple, Richard Cosway (1742-1821) and Maria Cosway (1760-1838). Richard Cosway was Britain’s first and one-and-only superstar celebrity miniaturist. He was considered an overdressed “Macaroni”, and could be often sighted in a scarlet coat, gold-laced waistcoat and cocked hat. His wife Maria, eighteen years his junior and beyond brilliant at multi-tasking, could paint lovely miniatures and was also a fine composer, singer, top-flight society hostess and, perhaps most importantly, she was a keen promoter of women’s education. She also perhaps had an affair with Thomas Jefferson when she was married to Richard Cosway.
In the 1780s, the Cosways lived in Schomberg House on Pall Mall next door to Thomas Gainsborough, a few doors down from James Christie’s new auction house. They moved in when a sexual therapy establishment known as the Temple of Hymen moved out, and the Cosways seem to have only relished the cachet conferred on the address by the Temple. For no sooner had they moved in with all their paintings and tapestries, and no sooner had Richard resumed his routine of staring at 12 to 14 sitters a day at half-hour intervals and painting their delicate features onto small ivory pieces with watercolour blues, then Maria started giving the best parties in London.
These highly musical affairs were on Sunday nights, and they are actually said to have caused London’s first traffic jams, thanks to all the sedan chairs and carriages blocking Pall Mall. Maria would sing on these evenings and often she hired other singers and musicians to accompany her. The Prince of Wales (the future George IV) was a regular attender, and many suspected that Richard Cosway was actually hoping the Prince might himself begin an affair with Maria because Richard might benefit financially from such an arrangement. Richard did serve as the Prince of Wales’s court painter and painted the prince’s own image more than forty times.
Richard’s exquisite combination of a stipple technique on the heads of his sitters and freeflowing brushstrokes on their clothes and the background make his miniatures still appear so stunning today. The eyes of his sitters are slightly enlarged as well. Some of Cosway’s miniatures are on display in the National Portrait Gallery as well, but they are not at present well lit. Fortunately Philip Mould collects Cosway’s miniatures and his gallery is on Pall Mall, so there is a decent chance of seeing a Cosway miniature on my Pall Mall Art Tour.